On Friday we (John Fleskes and the artists — and their wives — I mentioned in yesterday’s entry) toured the Dutch town of Breda. We had rijsttafel, one of my favorite Dutch meals, for dinner at a great Indonesian restaurant.
What’s rijsttafel, you might ask? Indonesia was a Dutch colony, so there are lots of Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands. Rijsttafel means “rice table”. Here’s how it works: If you order rijsttafel you are brought two different bowls of rice (usually one yellow and one white). You scoop some of the rice onto your dinner plate. Then, about 24 small bowls of different foods are brought out to your table. They are often arranged according to how spicy they are (Me love spicy!). You spoon the different contents of the food bowls onto your rice throughout the meal and enjoy an incredible feast. A good rijsttafel is my favorite thing to eat in Holland.
The Breda Strip Festival was rather different from the comic book convention I attended in Áviles, Spain as a guest a few years back. Áviles was a much more mellow and low key event; the Breda show bristled with business. There were lots of artists and lots of vendors.
Some of Breda was like an old fashioned comic convention in that there were people actually selling comics. The big difference for me, however, with European comic conventions in comparison to US shows is what I call the Sketch Situation.
Artists sell sketches at the US shows. In Europe, however, artists are expected to create drawings (often quite elaborate and in color) for free. I saw an entire long table filled with top European comic book artists churning out (free) gorgeous drawing after (free) gorgeous drawing for long lines of comics fans. Some of the artists brought their best brushes and complete sets of watercolors with them with which to color their fairly elaborate and finished works.
I was, quite frankly, conflicted. In the USA I’ve worked out a system in which I draw my convention sketches in advance, price them and put them in a binder that people can flip through. If they want to purchase a drawing or two, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. That method frees me up to do what I would rather do: spend my time at a convention talking to people, telling stories and getting to know my fans on a deeper, more personal level rather than just sitting there drawing all day with people only seeing the top of my thinning pate. I also get to draw what I want to draw, instead of being the Human Art Jukebox (“Draw me Batman!”). In addition, conventions are exhausting enough as it is, much less being further and completely drained by having to crank out drawing after drawing at a show. Plus, creating art is what I do for my living. It is how I support myself and my family. I don’t ask (or expect) fans to give me freebies from their businesses. Chatting among other artists, I express a resentment when we’re treated like what I refer to as “art monkeys”. Also, many people (especially in the US) value something for whatever they paid for it. If they got it for free,then it’s really not worth anything at all to a lot of these folk.
Then there’s the Ebay factor.
A close personal friend of mine, one of the most famous and respected of comic artists, now refuses to do free drawings at shows (he used to do loads of them). This followed a situation where he was approached by a fan at Comic-Con who proclaimed himself to be one of this artist’s most ardent and loyal fans. The fan made a fairly elaborate sketch request. The artist fulfilled that request in spades, actually surpassing what had been asked for, creating a mini-masterpiece. The next day this beautiful personalized work was put up for auction on Ebay by the scumbag who requested it.
So, that’s one side of it.
The other side is that I want to build a much larger fan base and following for my work in Europe (I’ve been doing a lot of American conventions lately for the same reason. For me it’s like being in a rock band playing small clubs all over the States to build a following. I think that with the many personal connections I make and the good will that I create, that strong fan support and allegiance will be the end result, with the added bonus of making many great new friends).
I also like attending European shows as a guest. I always bring my wife and we have a great European vacation afterwards with our round trip air travel already covered.
I know going into European shows what the “rules” are there, that European fans expect free drawings. I have been a pioneer in many ways in the business end of comic art and illustration. This strong stance of respect for art and artists that I take has often hurt me — but by my breaking new business, contractual and negotiating ground, it has ultimately benefited the community of artists at large, something of which I’m very proud. I’m a Big Boy; I can take the hits. That said, do I really want to be known as the American asshole who destroyed the European system? Although, ultimately, I think the benefits to European comic artists as a whole would be enormous, I’m not sure what form the personal backlash against my efforts would take. The most obvious thought that comes to mind is that I would no longer be welcome at European shows.
I think about this aspect as well: Is it fair for me to draw for free in Europe yet charge my fellow Americans?
So, you can see my dilemma.
For the Breda show, anyway (as in Áviles), I ended up doing a lot of drawings for the fans who lined up at my table. It meant that the art I brought to sell went pretty much unsold. It made perfect sense. Why would anyone pay for something that they can get for free? Fortunately, I brought a stack of my sketchbooks. Those little babies sold like the proverbial Dutch pancakes. My luggage was a lot lighter after the show (not for long, though, with my subsequent art book purchases around Europe).
Before I started sketching at the Breda Strip Festival, I was warned in advance by Mark Thelosen and Guido about certain abusive fans who might come up to me and try various strategies to butt into the front of my line.
I had such an encounter on Saturday.
An out-of-breath, blustery fan approached me from the side, cutting in front of the other folks who had lined up for drawings.
“I need you to do my sketch right away. I’m in a hurry.”
“Well, I don’t think that would be fair to all the people who have been patiently waiting in line for their drawings.”
“No; you need to draw mine right now. I need to leave within an hour.”
“I’m sorry, my friend, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. It just wouldn’t be fair.”
“BUT I HAVE TO LEAVE SOON!”
I turned back to the next person in line and asked them what they would like me to sketch. Mr. Buttinsky stormed off in a steamy huff.
I tried very hard but I just couldn’t feel very bad about this obnoxious guy not getting a $200 drawing from me for free — and ahead of everyone else.
I had a huge line and was determined that each fan would get a decent drawing. My publisher John Fleskes knows me pretty well by now, especially the business side of me. He was pretty shocked that I was doing such elaborate drawings for free.
Sure enough, at the end of each day of the show, I was completely exhausted — and I was not able to spend very much time talking to my European fans, many of whom came from as far away as Belgium, France and Germany to meet me.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.